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While Ariel Schrag’s 2014 novel Adam was well-reviewed and successful, it faced a backlash of transphobic claims due to its plot. The book is about a teenage boy who falls in love with a lesbian and pretends to be a trans man to win her over. A new Adam movie is due later this year, and that backlash against the story itself has only grown.
The accusations against the 2014 novel Adam
The titular character of Adam leaves his hometown of Piedmont, California, to stay with his sister in New York City. The book takes place in 2006, and he follows his sister into lesbian bars. Women there assume he’s a trans man, and he meets Gillian, a lesbian. He falls deeply in love with her and decides to see if he can pass as a trans man to win her over.
While users of social media platforms far and wide (from Twitter to YouTube to film site Letterboxd) have been vocal about the novel’s controversial nature, one Tumblr post in particular attempts to outline the problematic nature of the original novel. User “peach-course” points out all the ways Adam lies. In addition to claiming to be trans, he also says he’s 21 when he’s 17. Later he straps his penis down to have sex with his girlfriend with a strap-on. In a later scene he claims to be using the strap-on when he’s using his actual penis.
But it turns out that in the novel that’s not a problem. When Adam finally comes out to Gillian as cisgender, she says she knows and that she “started fantasizing about him as a ‘real guy’ [yes, that’s a quote] and that the image stuck in her mind and she started subconsciously imagining him with a penis.” The book ends with Adam and Gillian breaking up — and Adam finding out that Gillian’s dating another cis man.
The Tumblr post sums things up by describing the book as “An underage cishet boy lying about being an adult trans man in order to trick a lesbian into dating him! A scene in which he actually rapes her! The lesbian in question becomes attracted to cis men making Adam, essentially, conversion therapy!”
It should be noted that in real life, “corrective rape” is a form of abuse in which LGBTQ people — usually lesbians, but sometimes men — are raped in an attempt to make the victim straight.
Ariel Schrag’s response to the controversy
When asked about the controversy surrounding her novel, Schrag said, “I’ve been reading a lot of reviews where people who are nervous about the premise want Adam to be really punished, and they’re not happy that he, in their sense, gets away with it. I don’t see it that way. … I think the whole idea of Adam being punished is really interesting because he’s deceiving somebody — he’s lying, that’s wrong. But people are really angry specifically about appropriating an oppressed identity. I just think that’s fascinating to think about because what is so terrible about appropriating an oppressed identity? And what’s terrible is that people are oppressed. But ultimately his deception is just a deception. He’s also lying about his age, but no one seems to care about that. Why is one deception worse than another? I just think it’s interesting to think about that.”
In the same interview, Schrag adds that Gillian was based on Constance McMillen, a teen who wasn’t allowed to bring her girlfriend to prom. Shrag says, “All I kept thinking was, ‘What if in a year or two this girl is into guys?’ How and what sort of shame or what sort of anxiety will that cause her, and how fucked up it is that could happen and she had become this poster girl. I think labels are fun and they can be useful but really am very anti the whole label phenomenon. If anything, I would say the book is an attack on labels across the board.”
Schrag is also not unaware that her book could be called “problematic.”
In fact, as she told the Lambda Literary Review, that was her goal. She said, “The premise of the novel is supposed to be provocative. It’s supposed to ignite feelings of ‘Oooh that’s problematic.’ Fiction should get people thinking and talking and the idea of a cis teenage boy passing as a trans man brought up many issues and questions for me, which is why I wrote Adam. I don’t believe a premise alone can be trivializing.”
It should be noted, however, that in the same interview Schrag doesn’t think Adam would make sense set in the present day: “In 2006, trans identity is something the outside world seems to know nothing about, Adam feels less accountable.”
What we know so far about the Adam movie
Adam is the feature film debut of director Rhys Ernst. In addition to several short films, Ernst also has worked on Transparent as a director, producer and actor. (He played the waiter in the episode “Wedge.”) Ernst is also a trans man, who documented the simultaneous transitions of himself and his partner Zackary Drucker (also a Transparent producer) in a photo book, Relationship.
The film was originally going to be directed by Desiree Akhavan, who previously made Appropriate Behavior. She left the film due to scheduling conflicts, but said “[Adam is] a project that I love really dearly, it’s a script that’s really close to my heart.” She also said she was glad it was coming to the big screen, whether or not she was involved.
Unfortunately, information about the Adam movie has been kept close to the vest. So far we only know the director, that Schrag wrote the script and the cast and crew, which includes Nicholas Alexander in the title role. The film is currently in post-production, and a release date has not been set yet.